One year on: Remote-first forever

By Tom Coward, CFO, Cytora

There is a great irony that for all the flexibility that remote working has given us, many people around the world have been unable to leave the house due to Lockdown. But that hasn’t stopped us from seeing the benefits that remote work brings and learning from our experiences so far.

At Cytora, our remote-first story began in January 2019, when we introduced remote working one day per week. At this stage, the objective was to give individuals focused work time, without the distractions of the office environment.

There was usually a 50:50 split of those choosing to work either remotely or from the office, largely with engineers and product teams preferring remote with commercial teams preferring the office. One day per week increased time spent on focused work, but didn’t give people the flexibility to work from wherever they liked or on the days they wanted to, so it didn’t fundamentally allow people to work however works best for them. 

Meeting Covid restrictions

In March 2020, Covid-19 changed how we operate almost overnight, mandating all UK employees to work at home. As a result of this enforced remote environment, some bigger companies like Google announced that staff would work remotely until June 2020. Then, two months later they revised that to December. At Cytora, we decided that we would trial working fully remotely for four months before making a decision for the long term. 

Then in August 2020, based on the results we had seen and wanting to remove any ambiguity so that our team were able to plan their lives, we decided to go fully remote. Local lockdowns and travel restrictions were a catalyst, but not the reason. 

Taking the remote-first plunge

Our decision came down to five things:

  • Greater flexibility for teams and individuals to work how they want to, building their work life around family and other commitments rather than the other way around. Remote first means family and friends first. 
  • Demonstrating trust. Tying into the previous point, Google’s Project Aristotle found that the highest performing teams have one thing in common – psychological safety. In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members. They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea. Remote-first shows the trust that the company has in everyone to do their jobs, however works best for them. 
  • Diversity hiring. There is no longer a barrier to entry of proximity to the office. The best people from around the world can collaborate, with no information asymmetry or feelings of exclusion to those in the office. Most diversity candidates we speak to today cite Cytora’s remote-first policy as one of the key reasons they applied to the role. 
  • Flexibility of scaling. You don’t need to take space for the future to grow into, or if team sizes decrease there’s no unused space being paid for. Life for companies is much easier without hefty deposits, cleaning, fire drills, Covid hygiene stations, and fights about the optimal temperature.
  • Environmental impact. With London’s CO2 emissions cut by 60% during lockdown, the environmental benefits of not commuting are clear.

Implementation and impact to date

We’re now a year into our remote-first journey. And while many companies are still working from home due to Covid rules, making our decision permanent meant we were able to implement plans and processes for the future. This level of certainty definitely helped give our people stability and reassurance during otherwise uncertain times. 

The impact that being fully remote has on productivity is difficult to measure with so many other factors at play. But we have found that introducing meeting-free days has brought greater focus to work, and there is tighter alignment between teams, as documentation and asynchronous updates are so critical to remote collaboration.

We quickly acknowledged that not everyone handles working remotely in the same way. Some have dedicated office space, but some people are in flat shares, and some work from their bedrooms. So we introduced a budget for desk setups including ergonomic chairs and noise cancelling headphones to help level the playing field. 

And it’s not just about physical space. We learnt quickly that people had different approaches to remote working, relationship building and interacting with colleagues. To prevent any feeling of isolation that remote work can bring, we are proactive about organising opt-in activities, whether it’s social events like a virtual room escape game, scavenger hunt, cocktail making class, or time to focus on wellbeing through CBT workshops, yoga, or mindful drawing classes.

The feedback on these has been really positive, and we’ve learnt it’s all about choice. Giving Cytorians the option to participate in activities that suit them, and that work around other commitments. 

For anyone implementing remote-first processes, remember that the biggest benefits are in creating autonomy for people to work how and when they want. Policies should support that, and not be so restrictive that they’re stifling. 

If you’re operating in an industry where remote work is possible –  go for it. But do so proactively and stay focused on the remote-first objectives.

You can download Cytora’s remote-first manifesto in full here.